Improved testing forces UFC to update its anti-doping policy

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist
The UFC has updated its anti-doping policy so that fighters won't face discipline if situations arise similar to the one Nate Diaz faced ahead of UFC 244. (Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images)

LAS VEGAS — In an effort to protect its athletes from contaminated supplements, the UFC has made several changes to its anti-doping policy, which was enacted in a partnership in 2015 with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA).

Research showed that a large percentage of UFC fighters who had adverse anti-doping tests actually did not attempt to cheat but instead used contaminated substances at levels that were so low they could not have provided a performance-enhancing benefit.

Testing has improved dramatically and is able to detect levels of substances in an athlete’s body that it wasn’t able to do when the policy was enacted in 2015.

“This is the third revision we’ve done of the policy here and I am by far most proud of this one,” Jeff Novitzky, the UFC’s senior vice president of athlete health and performance, told Yahoo Sports. “I’m just as proud as when we launched the policy because I think this one is groundbreaking in terms of its fairness, common sense and due process. We’re always closely monitoring what’s going on with the policy and the last year in particular when we started to see these low, low level of contaminants show up in [fighters’] tests that wouldn’t provide any performance-enhancing benefit à la Nate Diaz, but which were [being flagged as adverse findings]. These revisions clearly address that.”

During training camp for his bout at Madison Square Garden in the main event of UFC 244, Diaz was taking a vegan, plant-based multivitamin. It turned out one was contaminated and he was flagged.

Under the original policy, he would have faced a long ban. But because he did not knowingly attempt to cheat and took a product whose ingredients are not banned, it wasn’t equitable to suspend him. So the UFC adopted threshold levels so that if similar situations arise in the future, they won’t be flagged as violations and fighters won’t face discipline.

“We’re really excited about the evolution of this program and actually we’re hopeful that it’s going to become a model for all sports,” Travis Tygart, the CEO of USADA, told Yahoo Sports. “We really want to protect clean athletes. As the marketplace of supplements and meat treatment has changed around the world, as the technology in the laboratories has improved and the sensitivity of the testing analyses has increased significantly, it’s created this kind of perfect storm. We’re able to detect trace and minute levels of certain prohibited substances. So on the one hand, certain things may show by intentional use.

“But what we’ve seen, and have proven, is that a lot of those positives are coming from totally innocent usage. It’s prescriptions, that are allowable, eating meat from certain parts of the world and the dietary supplements which have created problems. It’s not just supplements; we have literally had a gummy-type multivitamin that has had low levels of Ostarine [a banned SARM].”

As a way to prevent contamination, the UFC has directed its fighters to use only supplements that are certified by one of five accredited certification agencies:

  • NSF Certified for Sport

  • Kolner Liste (Cologne List)

  • Informed Sport Trusted by Sport

  • HASTA (Human and Supplement Testing Australia)

  • BSCG (Banned Substance Control Group)

The UFC will provide supplements made by Thorne, which are NSF certified, to any of its athletes who ask for them. The only requirement is that the fighters initially have to consult with the staff at the UFC Performance Institute, though it does not have to be in person. They will get the free supplements shipped to them as long as they consult over the phone at a minimum.

In addition, thresholds have been adopted for other substances, like Clenbuterol, which are occasionally found in meat consumed in Mexico and China most frequently but in other parts of the world, as well. Clenbuterol has been banned at all times on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s prohibited list, but the new program puts thresholds in place so that if a person unwittingly eats meat contaminated with it and tests for low levels that are of no performance-enhancement benefit, there won’t be a suspension issued.

There was also a change made regarding the use of IVs. Under the existing policy, IV usage was permitted only if an athlete was admitted to a hospital, or is having a surgical or diagnostic procedure. 

The policy has been expanded to permit usage of IVs if performed by a licensed medical professional and overseen by a licensed physician. Fighters still aren’t allowed to use IVs after a weigh-in as a means of rehydrating.

It is designed in the event that a fighter, say, gets the flu. Instead of having to go to the emergency room and getting a bill for $500 or more, they can go to a doctor’s office and have it done and only pay a co-pay. 

“This is not a scenario where all of a sudden IVs are going to be in vogue again after weigh-ins,” Novitzky said.

When Novitzky was an agent for the Food & Drug Administration, he was familiar with a case in Long Island in which a vitamin B complex sold in a major drugstore chain was contaminated with an anabolic steroid.

Senior citizens were showing up at their doctors, medical clinics and hospitals in unusually large numbers with yellowing in their hands and their eyes.

“They started testing these people and discovered they were all being exposed to a very toxic anabolic steroid in the B complex vitamin,” Novitzky said. “That’s about as benign a supplement as you could imagine and you still run into issues like that. So unless you are getting supplements that are third-party certified, in my opinion there are no supplements, vitamins, protein [powders] that are safe.”

The complete new policy is available at ufc.usada.org.

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